Padilla unfit for trial, defense experts say

Times Staff Writer

Two forensic psychology experts testified Thursday that alleged Al Qaeda accomplice Jose Padilla suffered mental damage during his 3 1/2 years in U.S. military custody and was unfit to stand trial on terrorism charges.

Testing and evaluation of the 36-year-old former Chicago gang member revealed “strong indication of cognitive impairment” and a 98% probability of brain injury, said Patricia Zapf, a clinical forensic psychologist and associate professor at City University of New York.

“I believe he is not competent to proceed, that he is not fit to stand trial,” Zapf testified as a witness for the defense.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke scheduled the competency hearing after Padilla’s defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case because of what they called “outrageous government conduct” that amounted to torture.


Padilla’s trial is scheduled to begin April 16.

Forensic neuropsychiatrist Angela Hegarty told the court that Padilla wasn’t competent to assist in his own defense because he exhibits profound anxiety and “shuts down” at any mention of his treatment at the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Both defense experts diagnosed Padilla with post-traumatic stress disorder and acute anxiety, which they attributed to his prolonged isolation and treatment at the Charleston brig.

Padilla, shackled and dressed in a tan cotton jailhouse tunic and trousers, sat impassively throughout the day’s proceedings. His only show of emotion was a wave and smile to his mother, who was seated in the back of the courtroom.

Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport upon his return from Pakistan in May 2002, on suspicion of having plotted with other terrorism suspects to unleash a “dirty bomb” on an unnamed U.S. city.

President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, and he was held in the brig without charges until late 2005. The government then moved the case to the federal court system with an indictment alleging Padilla was part of a North American terrorist cell providing material assistance to Islamic extremists abroad.

Lead defense attorney Anthony Natale has called mental health professionals and interrogation personnel from the brig staff to testify to the conditions in which Padilla was held. Testimony from the brig personnel, expected when proceedings resume Monday, could shed light on the military’s controversial and secretive practices in getting terrorism suspects to disclose incriminating information.

A Bureau of Prisons psychological evaluator, Rodolfo Buigas, is expected to testify for the prosecution that Padilla is competent to stand trial.

Hegarty, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, said Padilla suffered from a form of Stockholm syndrome in which a captive identifies with his aggressors because of a perception that they control his fate.

“When you are helpless and dependent on an all-powerful group, it takes away your anxiety when you line up with them,” she said, recalling instances during her 22 hours of discussion with Padilla when he would object to contradicting the government for fear of reprisals.

“He thought he would go back to the brig and that he would die there,” Zapf said. “He’s very much living in the present. He doesn’t want to talk about the past or think about the future.”

Any attempts to get Padilla to discuss his custody left the defendant “immobilized by his anxiety,” Zapf said.

Both witnesses reported that Padilla exhibited facial tics, flushing and perspiration, and that he evaded all questions relating to his solitary confinement. Defense attorneys say he was subjected to extreme temperatures and noise, fed LSD and other drugs, and made to endure hours of interrogation shackled in “stress positions.”

Both also denied that Padilla was deliberately feigning psychological problems to evade prosecution.

Assistant U.S. Atty. John C. Shipley attempted to discredit Hegarty’s post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis by pointing out that Padilla scored “a perfect zero” on the segment of a standardized test designed to detect symptoms of the disorder.

But Hegarty countered that visible symptoms of anxiety as well as nightmares, depression and hallucination had been observed in the defendant, leading her to conclude he was exhibiting “minimalization” or denial, a classic indication of the disorder.

Asked how she reconciled Padilla’s affidavit attesting to brutal treatment in the brig with his supposed mental alignment with his government jailers and accusers, Hegarty compared the defendant’s situation to that of a battered woman who vacillates between defense of the abuser and short-lived efforts to escape him.

Zapf described Padilla as polite and apologetic about his inability to discuss his military captivity and, like Hegarty, quoted the defendant as saying he feared that his defense lawyers were part of a government plot against him.

Cooke repeatedly overruled objections from the prosecutors that Hegarty and Zapf were straying beyond the questions asked of them. The judge’s latitude with the defense attorneys could signal that she will allow military jailers and interrogators to answer questions about their methods. Prosecutors in previous terrorism cases have stifled such testimony by deeming the techniques classified.